The quick way to sum up Mahabalipuram is that it’s a veritable how-not-to manual. How not to write characters. (A thus-far decent-ish bloke suddenly becomes a rapist.) How not to develop convincing situations. (One moment, the heroine is angry with the hero because he tried to feel her up in a movie theatre. A couple of scenes later, she’s spotted at a party with him, as if nothing had happened.) How not to sustain mood, atmosphere. (If you’re going to tell a serious, shocking story, shouldn’t some of that tone spill over into the earlier portions as well?) How not to end up with another Subramaniyapuram. (This film, too, tells a story poised between friendship and personal ambition, and here, too, we have a romance gone tragically sour. The similarity ends there.)
The first half focusses on five friends in Mahabalipuram — Kumar (Karunakaran), Sathish (Vetri), Saamy (Karthik Sabesh), Panja (Vinayak), and Kuppan (Ramesh Thilak). A considerable amount of time is devoted to the various pairing-offs. Sathish gets married to Sangeetha (Angana), who’s prone to spout lines about why beautiful women fall for mokkai men. At that point, I realised, to some mild consternation that I didn’t know what the exact English word for mokkai was. ‘Loser’, I guess, is in the ballpark. Kuppan begins a romance with a Canadian tourist, played by yet another actress who makes us wonder why it’s so hard to get foreign performers who emote convincingly in our movies. They always seem vaguely spaced out, as if they were in a cartoon and an anvil fell on their heads just before the director yelled “Action!”
And Panja — he’s a sculptor; he makes stone statues — falls for Mahalakshmi (Vithika). When he learns that she likes the Superstar, Dhoni and molaga bajjis, he tries to impress her with this knowledge. The molaga bajji scene is a riot. It’s the film’s best stretch, and it made me wonder whether the director Don Sandy’s talents really lie in comedy. When the bajji idea fails, Panja puts on a Dhoni T-shirt and tries to be a star batsman. The ball smashes into his groin, and he’s taken to a nursing home, and the doctor turns out to be a woman… I wish more had been done with this. But at least the punch line is funny. When she asks if he’s been hit in the chest, a friend replies, “Adi nenjila illa, doctor…” Take that, Censor Board. You may tell us what words we cannot use, but you can’t tell us what words we cannot imply.
Slowly, we get to the interval twist, which revolves around a gilma padam. (Now that I know the exact English word for: ‘porn’.) It’s a good twist, but the subsequent happenings devolve into crude melodrama, the equivalent of a hand reaching out from the screen and slapping us across the face so that we’ll feel something. I liked the idea that Panja could be a ‘likeable’ guy who does ‘normal’ things like fall in love at first sight while also being a gangster’s cold-blooded hireling, but the two aspects never come together convincingly. The writing, the acting, the staging — it all looks like someone shot the rehearsals instead of the actual takes.
And about that love angle, wouldn’t it be nice if at least one of these films depicted a scenario in which love doesn’t happen at first sight? Or if something else happened. The heroine passes by the hero. He looks up. A strand from her freshly shampooed hair, flying in the breeze, ends up in his eye. While trying to remove it, he drops his carving chisel, which pierces his toe and causes blood to spurt, droplets of which land on her white, freshly laundered dupatta — an entirely plausible scenario, considering she’s contractually bound to be moving in slow motion and, therefore, still likely to be in the vicinity. Just shake it up a little is all I'm saying.